Why We Lie to Ourselves About Fitness (w/ James FitzGerald)

Today we have a rare repeat podcast guest, James Fitzgerald. James was the first-ever men’s champion at the CrossFit Games – back in 2007 — and since then he’s built a reputation as one of the fitness industry’s most thoughtful and prolific coaches. His company OPEX offers a variety of online coaching and education resources, which gives James nearly-unparalleled insight into macro trends in fitness. But our conversation here goes deeper than the latest and greatest in working out. James gets candid about discussing how the question “why do we work out?” has more flawed answers than honesty. If you’ve ever wanted to dive into the philosophy of exercise, training, and the human condition, this is certainly an episode we hope you’ll enjoy.

James FitzGerald BarBend Podcast

In this episode of the BarBend Podcast, David Thomas Tao talks to James FitzGerald about:

  • How James and his company (OPEX) adapted from early 2020 through now (3:00)
  • The move to virtual-first and at-home training (6:30)
  • James’ “shameful” moment and realization in fitness (11:00)
  • The “why” of fitness and why it’s all about intent (16:22)
  • A simple example of intentions: “Why do we bench press?” (21:00)
  • Why you can hold two different opinions in your mind at the same time (23:30)
  • The folly of what we do compared to sustainable practice (26:00)

Relevant links and further reading:


James FitzgeraldJames Fitzgerald

..seeing so many people share ornaments. This is fitness. When you look at what the definition is of success and what the definition is of healthy, it doesn’t look like anything that’s being sold.


David TaoDavid Tao

Welcome to the “BarBend Podcast,” where we talk to the smartest athletes, coaches, and minds from around the world of strength. I’m your host, David Thomas Tao. This podcast is presented by barbend.com.


Today, we have a rare repeat podcast guest, James Fitzgerald. James was the first-ever men’s champion at the CrossFit Games — back in 2007 — and since then, he’s built a reputation as one of the fitness industry’s most thoughtful and prolific coaches.


His company, OPEX, offers a variety of online coaching and education resources. They have been for years, which gives James nearly-unparalleled insight into macro trends in fitness.


Our conversation here goes deeper than the latest and greatest in working out. James gets candid about discussing how the question “why do we work out?” has more flawed answers than honesty.


If you’ve ever wanted to dive into the philosophy of exercise, training, and the human condition, this is certainly an episode we hope you’ll enjoy that. Now, let’s get to the show.


James, I really appreciate you coming back on the podcast. You’re one of the few people brave enough to join us again on the BarBend Podcast. [laughs] I’m kidding. This is not one where being a guest is that painful, I hope, but thank you for coming back on. How have things been? It’s been over a year since we’ve chatted.

James FitzgeraldJames Fitzgerald

Yeah, things have been great. Where am I on the list of the second timers? Do you think I’m on top 10 for being second time?

David TaoDavid Tao

I think there have been fewer than 10. You definitely topped as far as second time.

James FitzgeraldJames Fitzgerald

Wow, that makes me feel special. I needed that for this morning.


I have great recollection of our last time we chatted. You asked some great questions. I was really appreciative of that. I’m looking forward to chatting again, to answer your question.


Right now, it’s sunny in Arizona and we have a number of coaches coming together this weekend, that are part of our OPEX family. That’s the main thing that’s happening at the current time.

David TaoDavid Tao

I know you as a road warrior, as someone who I’ve seen in multiple locations when we’ve crossed paths in person in the past. The last time we chatted was pre-COVID, pre-lockdown, and pre-shutdown. I’m curious how your workflow, your day-to-day, and what you’re doing, had to adapt in the past cold 18 months?

James FitzgeraldJames Fitzgerald

Yeah, that’s crazy.


I don’t know if we could discuss what has happened over the past two years in that answer. I don’t think I can either based on my story, but some big things. First thing comes to mind is that we were early adopters, for the online concept of communication and education for fitness. It wasn’t too difficult to rewire things and move stuff here and act accordingly.


With regards to business, our actual geographical location, which doesn’t affect this conversation, but does affect OPEX is that number of our staff didn’t come into work, either due to local regulations or just choice. We kept rolling.


We just recognized, we have this monster facility. It’s 15,000 square foot facility, and there was a license inside of it and we just recognized it’s way too much space for who was coming in and who was using it. So, the license went to another location, which is smaller, and we’re now in a smaller location.


Those are the two things I can think of since that period of time. There’s so many other stuff, but I’m very happy. We’re fortunate, but we also did a lot of work prior to that that I think we’re able to…The way I describe it is like a softwood tree where we’re stable, but we’re also flexible. We could put up with the storms, and maintain resilience based upon that. We’re good

David TaoDavid Tao

That is one of the more Zen quotes I’ve ever heard in the fitness industry. I do appreciate it. I might steal that.

James FitzgeraldJames Fitzgerald

No problem. That’s a great analogy because I always talk about how coaches, in those difficult times with clients, it’s important for us to maintain some rigidity.


Rigidity in analogy would be like a tree because the tree can maintain all the storms i.e. client issues and client problems and etc., but we stay consistent and we’re still going to be there. But it’s not just the tree, it’s like you got to be flexible if someone says…Yeah, I like it.

David TaoDavid Tao

I think that’s more relevant to what you do, and to the fitness industry. There’s that famous Bruce Lee quote, “Be like water.” Water fills the shape of the container. If it’s in a cup, it becomes the cup.


Be like a softwood tree, be stable, be consistent, be there, be predictable, but flexible. I absolutely love it. When heading into a time, you are a coach of coaches, a master coach of coaches in many ways, not to dumb…I don’t mean to dumb it down, but that’s all…


…would call you.

James FitzgeraldJames Fitzgerald

Thank you. I appreciate that.

David TaoDavid Tao

When COVID hit, when the lock downs hit, I should say, restrictions hit people in different countries. I know you all in the OPEX team works with clients all around the world, and gyms all around the world, but if different restrictions early on, some people have access to gyms, some people have access to home gyms, some people don’t, some people are basically stuck at home.


Were you all inundated with requests from coaches or questions about, “Hey, what do I do? How do I work with clients? How do I adapt training protocols for folks who might not have any equipment or might be very restricted in what they have access to?”

James FitzgeraldJames Fitzgerald

Again, based upon us being in the game for a long time, we were sought out more frequently. We can tell that based upon numbers that…Yeah, people needed to figure out how to do this thing now.


If fitness was social, and now social is different, then how we’re going to operate it. It’s obvious that the public, and globally people were like, “We should look to the individuals that had a footprint already in the technological space, and information sharing space for fitness education,” and we were one of those groups.


We acted like the professional, whatever that means inside of the fitness [laughs] thing. Yeah, we enjoyed that. As far as to continue that story on how we benefited from that, I think it was just more like a philanthropic [laughs] thing.


Meaning we didn’t get a numerous number of increased gyms that built up, we didn’t get 2x times clients online, we didn’t get 2x per coaches signing up for CCP per month, and that’s our bottom lines. What did we get from that? We just felt good.


We just felt good about saying, “Listen…”Just to finish on that point. One thing I found super interesting from that, and I appreciate you asking the question of going back and revisiting it. It really was a fundamental shift for me in thinking, based upon what is happening in fitness for the amount of people that didn’t know what to do.


That was a really big aha moment for me. I’m not surprised by a lot and just because of my experience or age too, but that surprised me, that took me back. I had a very cynical and for pessimistic view for a couple of years there of like, “Geez, have we really built up this whole fitness movement on a really poor basis support.”


This is why, like you asked me earlier, intentions of fitness are really important now based upon that aha moment I got where people are like, “Oh my God, I can’t do this,” is like, you could walk, you could do some air squats.


That was so simple that people couldn’t get that, it blew my mind. It’s free, that fitness is free. It made me look at the dependency model, the dependency relationship model, the commercial interests involved in making the whole thing spin. It was fascinating.

David TaoDavid Tao

One of the best conversations I had early on during lock down was I had…He might have been our first repeat podcast guest. Certainly one of the first few, Kalle Beck. He is a strongman athlete and coach.


He’s the founder of Starting Strongman which is fantastic and was a great early resource for people interested in that.

James FitzgeraldJames Fitzgerald

I’ve heard of that.

David TaoDavid Tao

He had a good point. I brought him on to the podcast, I had brought a weightlifter on. Chad Vaughn came on. Chad Wesley Smith came on more for the powerlifting and GVP strength space.


Kalle came on and it was all about, if you’re training at home, what are some things you can do to train at home? He brought up a really good point. He said that, “Look, we’ve gotten overcomplicated. I trained strongman athletes. The whole point of strongman is to pick up odd objects and pick up rocks.”


It’s amazing how many folks who don’t have access to a gym now forget that they can just go outside and take up rocks, or hold your dog and do goblet squats or Zercher squats with your dog.


He’s like, “We’re training so much and spending all this money to travel around and hire coach just to teach you have a lift logs and rocks. Why don’t you just go do some of that?” It was a very interesting inflection point for me, and I went, “Oh my goodness, what are we doing as a fitness industry?”


I want to take a little more into what you said. Not to stay mired in the pessimism, but I’m curious about that pessimism that had built up. It’s seems like you’re on the other side of some of that now. What were some the factors that contributed to that? How did that start accruing, call it a couple years ago?

James FitzgeraldJames Fitzgerald

Great question. I just don’t know if it’s just with age or over time. We just don’t like to be wrong. Anyways, I don’t like to be wrong. I never liked to be wrong. It felt shameful. It felt embarrassing. It felt burdensome.


Just imagine trying to create analogy for it, but you’re just hiking along and pulling on this people with you. It’s all butterflies and rainbows. Then, something happens and no one’s with you, and no one thinks the same way.


You got to go, “Well, maybe all that I thought was like what was happening there definitely had some oomph to it,” but it was a bluff. It was like a metaphor goal story. It’s like a dance, I like to call it. It’s just a dance. It’s like, “Whoa, what are we doing?”


Well, there’s a couple of people out there that do good. Therefore, that’s what we should all do. That’s just a couple of people. What about the 97 percent of everyone else who can’t make it consistent, who don’t have the competency of the accessibility to rock?


These are the things that brought me into that state. Based upon your use of word, I don’t know if pessimist is the right word, David. Maybe it’s cynicism. Fitness professionals need to be as cynic, I believe. It’s just based upon the correct landscape.


We’re not valued in society. If you’re not valued in society, the things that you’re going to say is going to sound like crazy talk most of the times. You got to be able to be a cynic. That probably leads them to my pessimistic outlook on it.

David TaoDavid Tao

I appreciate it. The point is it’s a very difficult thing, too. It’s very fun to talk about the peaks. It’s very fun to talk about the climb out of the valleys.


Talking about these low points, be it the a physical low point, be it a professional low point, or be it just a low point of outlook, if you’re somewhat a long career in fitness, it’s not like suddenly you’re out of a job or that the business wasn’t doing well, but the “why” can change. That can be a difficult thing to climb out of.


You do mentioned cynicism. You’re someone I know who has a very, very good sensor of dry humor. I found that fairly consistent among fitness professionals sometimes, especially the longer people are in this space, the dryer the humor it gets.


It’s one reason we have videos, so that I can actually see your facial expression today. Otherwise, I might miss some of the sarcasm entirely. Then I’d look really dumb. Let’s talk about climbing out of that in the past two years and this aha moment that you said is very rare to you.


You are a veteran of the space. I make no reservations in saying that. This aha moment has come more infrequently and more infrequently, just like training PRs come more infrequently the longer you do it. How did that start? Take me through that mental process a little bit.

James FitzgeraldJames Fitzgerald

First thing I thought what you’re asking me was in a phased shift of my career, I spent a lot less time on the floor. I spent there for a lot more time creating and called more in the cognitive space than in the physical space. That’s probably what made me do a lot more reflection, and contemplation, and like 3,000 foot view kind of things.


My level of clause I’m maturity, being in the game for a long period of time, all those things led to me getting to that point of, “Let’s think about this a bit more,” like asking big questions, David.


Personally, for me, what do I want to feel good about me in my days and my effect on fitness? What do I do truly believe in that I think that I can do every day that contributes outside of myself, but then I know that it was some form of contribution? That question, and it led me to another question like, “What’s the real definition of impact?”


I just come up with ideas while I share with others. If that impact is never measured and if nothing ever gets done, was it really impactful? You go into that space, of course, which takes time off the floor. That allowed me that cognitive space. Call it what you want, meditative space, contemplation space, time to just sit back more as opposed to drive things forward.

David TaoDavid Tao

One thing we were chatting about a little bit before we hit record here was something that get you very excited. As a repeat podcast guest, the easy questions, the questions about your background, the questions you can answer off the cuff.


We’ve been through this. People have heard it. If you’ve been with the pod for all of the listener, if you’ve been with the Barbend podcast since James first came on, congratulations. It’s awesome having you. I hope that this one just adds to the conversation instead of repeating anything. I think we’re on the right track.


Something, James, you mentioned you’re very excited about now is more of a mental component of intent when it comes to — and I might be butchering this, butchering what you said — the “why” of fitness as far as client motivation, working with clients, and getting more toward to that base level of motivational component.


Talk a little bit about how you’re thinking, and that has evolved in the last couple of years, and what gets you excited about that space.

James FitzgeraldJames Fitzgerald

Well, you did butcher one word there. It’s inspiration, not motivation. That’s a key difference, but the interest is in asking that big, hard question like, “What’s the real reason why you exercise?” and not stopping at what the surface answer comes back at.


My belief is that a lot of people walking around today have been socially injected to answer that question very quickly. I don’t think a lot of people actually take time to say, “No, really. What’s the real reason why?”


There’s a couple reasons why. When you do come to the truth of why you do exercise, a lot of it seems immoral or lower order or seems like it’s folly. Therefore, you’re scared to death of nihilism.


Secondly, you’re scared shitless that you’ve been hoodwinked. You’re like, “I can’t be wrong on this. I do this because I want to be healthy.” I was like, [laughs] “Maybe you are.” You’re like, “No, I’m not.” I was like, “What’s wrong with you being wrong about your own thoughts on doing this for being…?”


Those are the two major stopping points when people ask that question. I find it fascinating, which of course leads back to the previous thing I talked about, the “Aha” moments and the growth of the fitness industry and seeing so many people share ornaments.


This is fitness. When you actually look at what the definition is of success and what the definition is of healthy, it doesn’t look like anything that’s being sold, nothing like it. We know why. The consistent long-term plan for health and fitness is not sexy, therefore you can’t sell it, or you can’t broadcast it.


You can’t gain attention from it. I’m just voicing some of the things that come up when you start asking those questions. “What’s the real reason?” I could go on and on. There’s numerous thoughts that come from that.


I think if anything listeners could get is, just sit back and ask that question. Keep asking it every couple of weeks. Try to figure out why you do it. To get to the end, lands people safely, [laughs] so we don’t freak people out. That’s why I giggle. Right now, if you can’t see me, I’m giggling.


It’s like it’s folly. Exercise participation today is a diversion tactic away from other things that you could be doing. That’s what you’ll end up seeing, but that is humorous. That’s the beautiful human experiment. It’s like we don’t need to move, but we’ve been told that we need to do these things.


Immediately, when you make those statements, most people’s brains get cracked. They’re like, “I can’t. No.” “I see the global gym. I see fitness. I see all these people doing things. We must have to do it.” I was like, “You don’t have to do it. Why are you doing it?”


For strongman to win a competition, that makes sense. He probably want to do those things. To lift weights over your head and to beat other people, makes sense if you want to do those things. To win a CrossFit competition, you can’t walk in from walking in the sun lifting rocks. You got to do it. To live healthily, you start to get, “Yeah…”


What’s the context then of what you need to do for physical challenges that provides enough resilience to ward off bad shit, cognitively and physically, that allows you to express yourself for your whole life. When you land on that after that big, arduous eight-year journey of asking, “Why do I exercise?” you’ll just giggle.


It will feel like, “Listen, I’m just bench pressing because I can do it.” [laughs] “Oh, I thought it was for your PECS and hypertrophy and losing weight.” I was like, “No, not at all.” [laughs] It is because it’s there. I didn’t have bench press 300 years ago, but it’s right there so, “Hey, why not? [laughs] I can do it.” “Look at this, I can do a row.” “Look at this, I can squat.”


David, I hope you got from there. You could see how people get scared by going down that road of intentions because they don’t want to deal with the fact that it’s a diversion tactic. It’s folly. There’s no actual function to that exercise.

David TaoDavid Tao

 I love that you mentioned all this. One nugget I want to pull out is, earlier in the episode you mentioned walking.


In the strength community…I’m very guilty of this. I’m guilty of this as an editor. I’m guilty of this as a podcast host. I’m guilty of this as an individual. I will often equate strength-training elements with longevity. Then, I will go a week or more without accruing any significant number of steps.


Walking is maybe one of the most…If my “why” is longevity and long-term quality of life, why am I not doing the bas- level thing? I call it the bottom of the pyramid, of the hierarchy, to preserve that function long-term.


If I ask myself that, my first reaction going through this mental exercise that you’ve been so kind to lead us on is, “Wait, why am I equating this with my ‘why?'” That’s clearly false because if that was truly my “why,” my one motivating factor, I’d be walking 25,000 steps a day and then, doing things on top of that instead of prioritizing differently.


I appreciate that. It’s fun to go through this mental exercise live. I hope that our listeners get something out of that. I appreciate that.


James FitzgeraldJames Fitzgerald

Yeah, I think the words, also, your listeners want to pull from that is, is your noticing you had on you trying to define what longevity is. Listen, it’s OK to hold different opinions in your mind at the same time. That’s the thing.


People don’t think that they’re free to do that, but you can. You got to remember that doing harder contractions and being sustainable, which is the longevity component to tie into walking, etc., in different languages you were just mentioning.


That’s been around for a long time. [laughs] A really long time, and because we don’t need to move tribes every six months based upon the sun, that doesn’t mean that we still do not, as I said, practice in the fall. We are set up to do it.


Again, the main thing that people have issues with when you mentioned walking, they associate it with cardio, they associated with aerobic work. They associate it with losing strength and losing gains. They associated with a breakdown of muscle. Is it fat burning enough? Is it intense enough? Can I post it? This is where it leads the conversations on that.


I’m just going back saying, “Listen, you could do. Everyone can do it.” I don’t need to lay on all the positive benefits of it, but should you want me to, it’s a very simple answer. We’ve been doing it for a long period of time. Our body is mechanically set up to do it. It doesn’t provide any backlash against all the other things that you want to improve.


If anything, it’s going to wind you down better. It’s going to provide vitamin D, possibly, at a level that could be at this point in time important for people’s lives. It’s natural. When I say natural, it’s a heavy word. It is, meaning, it’s outdoors. It’s in a fractal environment. You’re not in a box. You’re not in a little square.


I could go on and on. It’s very positive. The word that I wrote down there, as you were mentioning, I purposely want to inject in the conversation. I want people to start using is sustainable. What are sustainable practices? Not only what our sustainable practices in modality. I hate lifting or aerobic work, but what are sustainable behaviors? That’s the next step.


When you start practicing these things like if you’re lifting weights intensely five times a week, you’ll recognize after a couple of years, that’s not sustainable. It takes time, you see.


If someone does know about that and for someone who’s selling it, they’re going to say, “Oh, eight weeks, this program is going to take care of it.” “But I want to do this for 60 years.” “Well, we’re not really sure what’s going to work out for that one, but I can tell you this, you’re going to get this in eight weeks.”


You know what I mean? Keep asking yourself, “What is sustainable?” Then every time you do something you’re going to go, “Is this going to allow me to do something again tomorrow?”


This is a practice, behavioral practice that I’m putting in place that’s going to allow me to do this over and over. Where people do some resistance three times a week. They do aerobic work four times a week and they press play on that motherfucker forever. That’s the story.

David TaoDavid Tao

James, I appreciate you sharing that. I have to say, I always look forward to our conversations because it certainly gives me something to think about for the remainder of the day, which is one reason I’m glad we’re recording in the morning.


As I walk around the remainder of the day…Now I will be walking, I’ll be thinking, “Why am I doing this?” I’ll be thinking about my inspiration versus motivation. I appreciate that inflection point and that comparison.


Where is the best place for people to follow along with the work you’re doing, which always seems to evolve and shift as it should, as your mindset shifts? What’s the best place for people to follow along?

James FitzgeraldJames Fitzgerald


David TaoDavid Tao

Easy enough. I love it. I love it. [laughs] If you’re looking for content, visit BarBend, folks. If you’re looking for content, listen to our podcast.


James is someone who is no stranger to the content game. When he says visit to learn more, you can go way, way down the rabbit hole there, so just to clarify that. James, I really appreciate you taking the time, always a pleasure to chat. That’s really all I got to say. [laughs]

James FitzgeraldJames Fitzgerald

Awesome. Thanks for having me, keep up the good work. What number episode is this?

David TaoDavid Tao

Oh dear, because we release them not necessarily in the order we record. We’re approaching 200 episodes.

James FitzgeraldJames Fitzgerald

Good for you, solid.

David TaoDavid Tao

Maybe we’ve crossed that already? I don’t know. I need to check with our editor. [laughs]

James FitzgeraldJames Fitzgerald

That’s fantastic. Do you feel like you’re having an impact?

David TaoDavid Tao

It was difficult. I will say it’s been difficult the last year not seeing folks in person as much, not going to as many events. For example, I go to a lot of USA weightlifting events because I work with the color commentary team.


For me, that was a very consistent thing every other month I’m at an event, and I’m seeing people. Not really having that in person, you lose it.


Actually, it was at the CrossFit Games this year, which was not my first in-person fitness or strength event during COVID, but it was one of the call it four I had been to since things had started back up a bit. Literally, walking through vendor village and having multiple people approach me, and I’m a nobody. My social media is nothing. It’s all under the BarBend brand. Our team is amazing.


I put myself out there on the podcast, and that’s about it. It was amazing having folks coming up to me and saying, “Hey, can I ask you a question about this episode?” I had multiple people coming up and saying “Hey, you were talking to this person, why didn’t you ask it this way?” or, “Why didn’t you ask this question?”


Boy, was that a great reminder because I am very much an in-person dude. I am validated. I will say we all search for validation. I am validated when someone comes up and asks me a question or says something to me face-to-face.


As events have started back up and I’ve been traveling to events, I’ve gotten more of that. It has revitalized my passion and excitement for this podcast.


Because I know there are people out there who’ll hopefully get you.

James FitzgeraldJames Fitzgerald

Yeah, super. Well, that’s a good sign.

David TaoDavid Tao

Awesome. Thanks so much, James, appreciate it.

James FitzgeraldJames Fitzgerald

OK, buddy, take care.